By Chaya Malka Kruss-Glussak and Nachum Blacher
Translated by Hedva Scop, Henia Sneh and Haim Katz
Edited by Sara Weiss-Slep
The shtetl goes by various names: Dusiat - in Russian, Dusetos in Lithuanian, and the Jews called the shtetl Dusat-Dushat. The shtetl itself is situated between Rokiskis (Rokishok), Utena (Utian) and Novo-Alexandrovsk (Ezerenai/Zarasai). The natural surroundings were quite beautiful. Pine forests, a lake and a river surrounded the village. Green fields and gardens bloomed extensively during the spring and summer. The suburb Padustelis (Podusiat) served as a summer holiday resort (dacha) for the people from the neighboring townlets.
A lake separated Dusetos from a courtyard (heyf) belonging to a Polish landowner (poritz). The lake was called the Courtyard Lake, and could be crossed by means of a wooden boat, run by Yosse Gafanovitch.
In the winter, the lake would freeze over totally, and one could travel across the ice. There was a local saying that the lake had to claim a victim each year. In the early spring and in the autumn everything was covered in thick black mud. Anyone walking in galoshes or travelling by wagon would sink deeply into it.
The three main streets converged on the market place. There were only a few houses between the square and the lake, as well as the Chassidic synagogue. The market place spanned an area of four acres and there were a few shops on all sides of the square. Almost all the shops had dwelling places above, accessed by an outside staircase.
The street facing the lake was called Maskevitcher-Gasse and ran in the direction of the Christian townlet Padustelis. Off to the right was the Skinaiker forest. Past the forest was a road that led to Antaliepte (Antalept) and Utena. On the left via Deguciai one could access the road running to Novo-Alexandrovsk.
From the market place, on the left side of the lake was Unter-Brik-Gasse (Under-the-Bridge Road) leading to Uzpaliai (Ushpol) and Rokiskis. The road followed the course of the Perkailus river, and hence the name, Unter-Brik-Gasse. The church and residence of the local priest were situated at the end of this road.
To the left of the square was Milner-Gasse, and at the end on a hillock was a windmill. The sails of the mill were visible from our window. From the direction in which the sails rotated, we could tell which way the wind was blowing. The miller was Elya Yoffe, a tall, handsome and scholarly Jew. Everyone in the shtetl was very fond of him.
The public bathhouse was at the end of Milner-Gasse. For many years Leib-Itze Scop maintained it. In his later years he immigrated to South Africa where he lived out the rest of his life in a quieter fashion.
Between Milner-Gasse and Maskevitcher-Gasse stood both the large synagogue (Beth Hamidrash - shul) and the smaller prayer house. Behind the large synagogue was the well where all the inhabitants would draw their water. Over and above the well, Dusetos had two springs, which served to quench one's thirst during the hot summer days. On Shabbos eves, the Jews would draw water to prepare tea for the Shabbos. The Shabbos goy Mazeleniche would take the clay vessels from those waiting on line and fill them up with the sparkling water.
The only streets in the shtetl were those mentioned above. Between the wooden houses, one could see a couple of red brick houses owned by the Jews who were more comfortably off. There was no electricity, but because of the straw roofs of the Christian houses, Dusetos was illuminated more than once.
A large fire broke out in 1905. A couple of horse thieves set alight a building in the vicinity of the bath-house, and the fire spread to Milner-Gasse. Many of the homes of the non-Jews were burnt and the poyerim (peasants) waited for an opportunity to settle the score with the Jews. An air of unrest filled the shtetl and the Jews feared that this would lead to a pogrom. The youth formed themselves into self-defense league, and were joined by those from Salakas (Salok) and Novo-Alexandrovsk.
The danger of the outbreak of a pogrom was greatest on Sundays and Wednesdays, the latter being market day. Many peasants would come to the market from the surrounding area.
One Sunday, a pogrom did indeed erupt. The Christians, on their way out of church, started attacking the Jews. Members of the self-defense league held out bravely against the rioting, but the counter-attack was tough. The pogromists broke into Jewish houses and stores, smashed the windowpanes and stole what they could. The Jews barricaded themselves in the cellars and in the women's section of the synagogue. The league managed to fire a few shots before retreating. Itze Barron, who had a shop in the market place, crouched on the stairs with a handgun and fired at the angry poyerim. After he ran out of bullets, the rioters pulled him down the stairs and beat him over the head.
Rochel-Leah Poritz lived nearby Itze Barron. Rochel-Leah was blonde and looked like a Christian. She donned the local apparel and ran over to the priest's house. She found him inside the church and cried out to him: Just know that you are responsible for today's events in the shtetl, whether it be in the name of G-d or in the name of the authorities. One man has already died, and who knows how many more will fall! The priest heeded her words and ordered the bell-ringer to sound the bells. When the rioters heard the ringing, they took it as a call to come to church. The priest implored them to stop the pogrom.
The authorities in Novo-Alexandrovsk were informed, and they sent a Cossack company who managed to drive the rioters away and restrained the leaders in chains.
Among the peasant leaders were: Venezindes, Barzdes, Kaitkes, Pakalnes and others. They were indicted, convicted and sent to prison. The Cossacks remained in Dusetos for an extended duration. They set up quarters at Maishe-Leib's house. When things calmed down, they were called up, and off they went. Thanks to the very brave Jewish woman, Rochel-Leah, the shtetl and its inhabitants were saved.
In 1908, a further pogrom almost erupted. The Dusetos resident Yoel, bought a cow in Kriaunos, about 6 miles from Dusetos. Apparently he managed to convince the owner that the cow was barren. But the owner soon found out that the cow was with calf. He sought Yoel out at home and threatened to kill him. The news of the incident spread like wildfire. The self-defense league intervened and persuaded Yoel to back down from his previous claim. For a long time people in the shtetl continued to live in fear of the outbreak of a pogrom.
In 1910 another large fire raged. Almost all of Dusetos was burnt down. Of the few surviving buildings were the Hassidic synagogue, and the homes of Itze Mashiah and Henech Kahath. It is hard to describe the tragedy. Men, women and children, including the elderly, were gathered on the muddy banks of the river. Everyone had lost their homes and all their possessions. Children wept heart-breaking tears, but no one paid any attention to them. Everyone's spirit was broken. News reached the surroundings towns and villages and soon people started arriving, bringing with them food and clothing. They also managed to gather a large sum of money in donations. With aid coming in from America and Africa, work on rebuilding the shtetl commenced. The large synagogue was reconstructed. By 1912, the building was completed.
There were some 200 Jewish families in Dusetos. According to the supervisor book (Ispektzia Buch) of the Folks Bank of January 16th, 1927, 704 souls were accounted for. Side by side the Jews lived about 100 Gentiles, who were Christians and of Lithuanian origin. Many Jews became retailers and artisans. Some earned their living by working the land on plots they leased. There were thirty Jewish-owned stores, the largest being that of Rochel-Leah Poritz, Bertchik Levit and Chaim-Leib Adelman, Henech Kahath and the wife of Eber. Eber was an advocate, a wise man who was also well versed in the Torah and an exemplary scholar.
The longest row of stores was opposite the lake and belonged to the Levit clan who were known as the Yuzinter (those who hailed from Yuzint - Juzintai). They were very learned and somewhat proud folk.
Wednesdays were market days. This was the only day of the week that the Jews could make a living. Fairs were held twice a year and they were quite a spectacle.
During the WWI, Dusetos traded with Daugavpils (Dvinsk) by means of oxcart. There was no railway station in Dusetos. The closest railway station was Obeliai (Abel). During the war, a few traveled by rail, but most people traveled by horse.
In Dusetos, like in the other prevalently Jewish townlets, there were peddlers, shoemakers, tailors, smiths and other tradesmen, and also butchers. There was only one furrier and one wood joiner (carpenter). Abba Der Ilgishiler was the only carpenter in the shtetl. In later years he went blind, however he continued to work at his trade. Lozer was the local potter. His wares were sold both at the local market and at those of towns and shtetlach in the area. Another admirable person was Dr. Druyan who went to Israel. Meir Tzirlin was a learned man who traded in tailoring cloth, and then parted for America. Abba Shlomovitz, the son of the late Reverend Shlomovitz, went off to Johannesburg where he wrote several books.
The richest and most well to do families other than the Levits, were Moshe-Leib Ziev who ran a tavern where both guests and government officials would stay, Chaim-Leib Adelman and Emmanuel Slep.
The shtetl was proud to have Torah scholars who would serve as readers in the synagogue services. Rabbi Noteleh Zilber officiated until his passing before WWI. His son (Rabbi Eliezer Silver) is a well-known rabbi in the States. Dusetos had 5-6 cheders, one at a high level. The teachers were learned men: Alter Shein; Moshe Paseler who was also a writer; Moshe Karpelas; Moshe-Elya; Leib-Itze; the Gemora teacher Avram-Moshe; another Gemora teacher Shaul; and Chaim-Leib. The rebbe of the higher cheder was Yechiel Garber and was renowned for his Hebrew teachings.
Before WWI, besides studying in cheder, Jewish children attended the Russian folkschool. From Dusetos, emerged honorable Jews and outstanding personalities. Among them was Soreh-Leah Shein who lived to the ripe old age of 99. She made a living by practicing cupping and leeching. She served both as nurse and midwife. She had a cure for every illness. Other interesting personalities were: Chaim-Aharon Shein the pharmacist and son-in-law to the rabbi; Zovl was the male nurse. A fine human being was Shaul-Dovid Shubb, the slaughterer. He was a serious scholar.
Mordechai Yoffe in the book Lithuania, edited by Dr. Mendel Sudarsky, Oriah Katzenellenbogen and Y. Kissin, wrote in length about Reb. Shaul-Dovid:
He was handsome, erudite and bright, and modern. One does not have enough fingers on one's hand to count all his good qualities. People could trust him and had respect for him. If asked a question, he would give an answer; if asked for advice he would give it. He was always willing to add a few good words. If there was a dispute, he would mediate. If there was a simcha, he would participate. If someone was in trouble, he would help. How could it be otherwise?
While mediating, he would lean back in his armchair as if at the Pesach Seder, listening calmly to each of the sides, and looking for the best way of reaching an agreement.
Characters worth mentioning are: Reb Eliyahu Aharon the Torah reader on Shabbos; Henech Kahath and the rebel Hirsche Rubin's. He was always in dire straits, living in poverty and hunger. He always had a grudge against everybody.
Others deserving of mention are: Elya, the son of Soreh-Mira, with his kindness and compassion for others; Pinyah the painter with his respect for learning, even though he himself could not read enough to daven; Itzikel Esak, otherwise known as Itzikel the Bricklayer, who was a pauper; Leibele Nye Rosh (Hands Off in Russian) whose nickname was inspired by an incident where he had tried to take a pumpkin from a peasant's wagon, and the peasant had warned him fiercely not to touch the wares.
WWI changed Dusetos. There was not one military force that did not pass through. From the cannon fire in the distance, they thought the Russians were preparing to march on the town. Just as they started packing their belongings, the Germans arrived and all the inhabitants remained at home. Even before the appearance of the Germans, a group of refugees had come from Vilnius (Vilna). The Dusetos Jews received the Vilnius Jews warmly and openly.
In the period after the war, the Jews of Dusetos had managed to make ends meet. The stores were open and the merchants would travel to Panavezys (Ponevez) to order to purchase merchandise. Most of the trade took place amongst the closest villages, both in buying and selling.
The economic situation in Dusetos had not changed much since the war.
After Daugavpils was incorporated into Latvia and trade increased with Rokiskis (since Panevezys was too far away), the shtetl became unrecognizable both culturally and spiritually.
The Balfour Declaration brought with it a new national spirit. The old cheder went out of fashion. Instead it became a culture school. The headmaster was Hillel Schwartz, and the teachers were Yudel Slep and Leibtzik Gordon. Berl Levit taught night classes for the adults and was in charge of the teaching staff. He went to Johannesburg afterwards. A Maccabi organization was established numbering 50 members. A library was opened and the newlyformed dramatic circle put on some shows. There was also an active Zionist group.
In 1924, a Jewish national bank was opened. The managers were David Schwartz and Yossel Poritz. There were 152 clients, drawing from various skills and professions: 53 tradesmen; 78 storekeepers and merchants; 4 gardeners; 8 builders and foremen; 2 clerks; 7 free and other professions. The bank also included the neighboring Antaliepte in its activities.
Dusetos followed the Mitnaggedim stream.
During this period, there was a minister who was responsible for Jewish affairs in Lithuania, and an elected committee ran the affairs in the shtetl.
There was also a left-wing movement in Dusetos. Amidst the shtetl-dwellers were some prominent figures. One of the Levit family (Dr. Yeshayahu Levit) went to study in Germany, where he read for a doctorate in Philosophy, and when he came for a visit, a banquet was given in his honor.(He died suddenly in Vilnius 1940).
Yisrael Joffer (Yoffe) who wrote for the Kaunas (Kovno) publication De Yiddishe Shtieme (The Yiddish Voice) and Mordechai Yoffe the poet and writer who went on to Canada, both hailed from Dusetos.
The inhabitants of Dusetos were in touch with the Jews of Salakas and Antaliepte, as well as Deguciai some 17 miles away.
May their memory be blessed!
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